Experiment 27

The Argentina Experiment

Working 6 Weeks From Buenos Aires

Since 2005, we’ve run our business on a distributed model. We have agents (or, as we call them, CX Specialists) working from home, taking customer calls over the Internet. This model saves our employees the time and expense of commuting, saves the company office rent, and delivers great customer service around the clock.

We wanted to do more. Some of our employees, like designer Evan Bowers, still worked out of our Portland-area office. Could Evan be as productive doing his detail-oriented and conceptual design work from another location? Could Kristen, who had joined the FULL Creative team as the steward of our Workshop—charged with creating meaningful contacts with our customers and employees—manage that operation from abroad?

We decided to find out.

From October 24 to December 4, 2013, the pair lived in Buenos Aires, doing the same jobs from another city, country, and continent four hours (five after Daylight Savings Time kicked in) ahead of home.

Kristen says they chose the Argentine capital, despite neither of them speaking much Spanish, because “we wanted to break out of our comfort zone, but not be so far out of it that six weeks wouldn’t be enough to acclimate ourselves. Buenos Aires is known for being a lively and approachable city.”

Schedules & Seating

Finding apartments mostly through the online house-sharing service airbnb, Kristen and Evan started in San Telmo, an historic neighborhood just south of the city center. To choose their apartment, they’d made sure to look for enough space for two people to work, and plenty of sunlight. They soon found a detail they’d overlooked, however—chairs. Some of the apartments they rented, he says, had nothing but wooden stools. Others had a few chairs with cushions, but not necessarily anything suitable for a full shift of seated work.

During twelve days in San Telmo, the pair adopted a daily work schedule with two things in mind. First, they worked until 9 or 10 at night, so that they could check in with coworkers back in Portland at the end of the Pacific Time workday. That late finishing hour allowed them to achieve another goal—coordinating their workdays with the life of the city. Since the people of Buenos Aires often take a few hours off in the middle of the day for a yerba mate break, Kristen and Evan were able to leave work and explore the city in the afternoons. And because the dinner bell in Argentina rings late, ending their workdays at five Pacific time put them right in sync with the surrounding neighborhood, where people dine as late as 10 pm.

Communication & Collaboration

Kristen and Evan’s next stop was the neighborhood of Palermo Hollywood, to the northwest. There they explored that large barrio’s trendy shopping and expansive natural areas while mingling with its expatriate population. They also started two hours a day of Spanish lessons while continuing to confront the challenges of working as part of a remote team.

For Evan, this meant touching base with his fellow designer, Brooke, back in Oregon. “I wanted to make her feel that she was still part of a team,” he says. “She always had feedback on the work she was doing, and I tried to make myself available through video calls and things like that.” Of course, this wasn’t Evan’s first “work anywhere” rodeo. “It was pretty easy for me, because I do that every day anyway with Hari,” he says, referring to a Chennai-based front end developer.

While in Buenos Aires, Evan and Brooke worked on new websites for our business phone system Synclio and FULL Creative itself. In addition, he and Brooke worked with Michael in Portland and Madhavan in Chennai, India, on a new application focused on making remote work easier. “We were doing all the collaboration and ideation through Google Docs,” he says. “We came up with a process we can replicate for other projects. We pretty much knocked it out.”

Kristen’s position is less digital, and therefore presented different challenges. The Workshop, our in-office storehouse of gifts, stationery, and packing supplies for reaching out to employees and customers, is a tactile place. Before leaving, Kristen says, she laid the groundwork for her absence. Rachel and Paul had been tapped to take over what she couldn’t do from Argentina, so Kristen made sure they had all the supplies and instructions they needed to keep the operation running. From South America, she did “inventory, ordering, organizing client info, strategizing news ways to make connections, and anything else I could do online,” she says.

Challenges

Next, the couple moved to Barrio Norte, where their apartment featured a patio with a hammock and was close to busy artery Santa Fe Avenue. As the trip drew to a close, they began to have a clearer understanding of the challenges of working remotely.

Managing the Workshop, which is all about making connections with physical surprises and presents, wasn’t easy to do from far away. “I had a little bit of guilt,” Kristen says, “that I couldn’t do more, but I also didn’t want to be micromanaging.” Forced to depend on other people to step in, she tried to take advantage of the new perspective travel can bring. As she and Evan explored the city, she said, she kept an eye out for how the Argentines connect with one another, and thought about how she might incorporate those new ideas into the Workshop. She noticed that interactions we might consider intimate, like a hug and air kiss on the cheek, were casual greetings in Buenos Aires. And dinner, for Americans can be very informal, was treated as something almost sacred. “Argentines seemed to make their interactions bold,” Kristen says. “They’re risk-takers. But that’s what makes so many elements memorable. It’s a good lesson when you’re trying to reach out and build personal, meaningful connections.”

One thing Evan missed while working in a different hemisphere, he says, was the ability to sit face-to-face with other members of the creative team and sketch out ideas. “When you’re brainstorming a project,” he says, “it’s really nice to be able to get that hands-on element.” The insight led him to begin planning an app that would combine video chat and drawing functions. “Something that allows you to talk through visuals. It’s just easier to convey your ideas that way,” he says.

While walking around Barrio Norte and the other areas they visited, Evan looked at street art for inspiration he could incorporate into his designs for FULL Creative.

Back Home

After a final stop in the neighborhood of Villa Crespo, Evan and Kristen returned to Portland and their regular schedules. They haven’t forgotten, however, about the Argentine siesta lifestyle. Southeast Portland, where FULL’s office is located, Evan says, could be a good place to try out the split workday. “I think it’s totally something we’d be able to do,” he says, taking a long break in the middle of the day and working a bit later into the evening.

Six weeks in another country, Evan says, was in the “Goldilocks zone” for a working excursion—not too short, and not too long, with an opportunity to change your mindset and come away with new ideas. “When you take a short trip, like a week, it kind of doesn’t even feel real,” he says. “Whereas six weeks, the fourth, fifth, sixth weeks roll around and you start feeling that you’re integrated into the culture. You live in the city, you’re a part of their lives. I feel like it has an effect on how you think about life and work, and what you do.”